Here’s a common-sense question: Why are we outraged by products made in China that could pose safety and health risks to adults, children, cats and dogs, but not about the millions of workers in China exposed to even more hazardous risks themselves?

Here’s the easy answer: We’re talking about threats to public health, and especially helpless kids, versus workers free to accept job risks or not. It’s why EPA’s budget dwarfs OSHA. Protecting at-risk kids versus adult workers, protecting homes versus factories. No contest. Here or abroad.

At-risk mill workers and heavy laborers were invisible in this country a hundred years ago, until muckrakers, pioneer investigators like Alice Hamilton, and writers like Upton Sinclair publicized brutal working conditions, armless employees, countless dead, and destitute families. Even then, it took Congress almost three-quarters of a century to pass the OSH Act.

Angered consumers, ignored workers

So now history repeats itself in China. The Chinese safety scandals of last summer revolved around manufactured consumer goods and food products. The chemical melamine in Chinese wheat-gluten exports used in pet food were blamed for the deaths of dogs and cats in the U.S. Then followed headlines about contaminated seafood and fruit, and poisonous industrial diethylene glycol in cough syrups and toothpaste. Additionally, Chinese cars exported abroad fared terribly in crash tests in Germany and Russia.

Last August, toy manufacturer Mattel started recalling millions of toys exported from China. The company announced that tests found dangerously high lead content in the lacquer of its toys and that attached magnets came loose easily and could be swallowed by small children.

“If these things are so dangerous for the consumer, then how about the workers?” asked Anita Chan, a labor rights advocate who teaches at the Australian National University, in aNew York Timesarticle published last month.

Persistent problems

It is no surprise that unsafe working conditions are still commonplace in China, the world’s enormous factory floor in this era of globalization. I visited Beijing in 1989 and was refused entrance to a massive mill outside of the city. Police tried to confiscate my camera after I took photos of a crane collapse near an apartment complex. In the 1990s, multinationals like Nike, Mattel and Gap took huge PR hits for using suppliers that maintained sweatshop conditions, and in response launched the modern so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. To protect their brand equity as much as to claim the moral high ground, these corporate giants began using internal personnel and outside auditors to inspect supplier factories. Millions of CSR dollars and thousands of inspectors have improved safety in some, perhaps many, factories, according to knowledgeable sources.

But recent reports by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) criticize many Chinese factories for exposing their workers to old, unguarded bladed machinery; constant high noise and dust levels; and toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium and mercury.

In China’s Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong, factory workers as young as 16 often work 16-hour days on fast-moving assembly lines and lose or break about 40,000 fingers on the job every year, according to a study published a few years ago by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

“I work on the plastic molding machine from 6 in the morning to 6 at night,” a 16-year-old worker toldThe Times. His hands were covered with blisters. The machines are “quite hot, so I’ve burned my hands,” he explained.

A former employee at the same factory told the reporter many workers suffered from skin rashes after working with gold powders, and “it’s quite noisy and you stand up all day, 12 hours, and there’s no air conditioning.” “We may be dealing with these things (unsafe products) for a short time, but they (the workers) deal with them every day,” said Chan, the labor rights advocate.

Long list of excuses

“Should this (The New York Timesarticle) be one of the topics presented at the ‘Annual International Occupational Hygiene Issues Session’ at the AIHce 2009 to be held in Toronto, Canada, in May 2009?” asked Andrew Cutz, CIH, in a recent Internet post to the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s International Affairs Committee.

Talking about worker abuse in China is better than “out of sight, out of mind,” but why wait until 2009? And really, the lack of any credible safety rules enforcement in China, the appalling lack of personal protective equipment, and the poor-peasant-as-disposable-factory-grunt model has been reported on, studied, documented, analyzed and widely known for decades.

In this issue of ISHN, Dr. E. Scott Geller examines reasons for the lack of moral courage that often undermines taking a stand on important safety issues. They all apply to the safety and health problems in far-away China.
Rationalization (the logical argument): “What can I do about it, one person, on the other side of the world?”
Reaction formation (taking the contrary viewpoint): “I’m overworked and underpaid as it is dealing with my own job.”
Projection (transferring responsibility): “China must be accountable for its own safety problems. Or let the NGOs or the multinationals or the World Court or the United Nations or whatever handle it.”
Denial (head in the sand): “These things take time. Conditions in China are much better for workers than they were.”
Repression (forget it and move on): “When I retire I could see lending a hand overseas.”
Displacement (transferring action to something less intimidating): “If I can send my own workers home safely each day I’m making a difference the best I know how.”
Regression (lose your cool when pressed to act): “Those kids in China know the risks they’re taking. No one is forcing them into those factories.”

Huge obstacles

Any of these self-defense mechanisms are easy to grab hold of when confronting an issue as vast, complex and seemingly overwhelming as China’s job safety and health problems:
  • The Chinese Ministry of Health in 2005 estimated at least 200 million of China’s 700 million workers were routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and life-threatening diseases in factories.
  • The International Labor Organization estimated in 2005 that 386,645 Chinese workers died of occupational illnesses relating to overdose exposures to toxins such as lead used in the manufacturing of paint, batteries, iron and steel, glass, cables and certain plastics.
  • Economic growth is more imperative to Chinese authorities than enforcing safety laws.
  • U.S. businesses know their costs are lower when outsourcing manufacturing to China because the regulatory environment is more lax.
  • Chinese factory owners are sometimes tipped off to inspections in advance, inspectors are sometimes bribed or too inexperienced to find problems, and quick fixes are not sustainable without consistent compliance enforcement.
  • Many large factories have satellite workshops, much smaller and more primitive and dangerous, that auditors never see.
  • Workers who try to organize their own free trade unions are arrested and imprisoned.
  • Most American businesses that import from China are small and medium-sized, without the resources of multinationals to audit factory conditions.
  • China faces enormous public health challenges, such as ensuring clean drinking water, air pollution control, and sewage treatment, that demand immediate investments. (See EPA’s media attention and calls for a Secretary of the Environment versus OSHA’s backwater media profile to understand further EHS priorities here and abroad.)

No easy answers

“This is a big-picture problem,” said Garrett Brown in an article published last summer in theSalt Lake City Tribune. “Big-picture problems don’t have quick or easy solutions,” said Brown, who has written on Chinese safety and sweatshop issues forISHN.

But big-picture problems are too large to ignore, ultimately. The Chinese government will pass more laws. The multinationals and their industry alliances will press on with codes of conduct and CSR initiatives. NGOs will act as de facto regulators and world police. U.S. professional societies will mentor and nurture foreign technical talent, rare as it is.

But what about you? Respect for human dignity — a fundamental passion of professionals — knows no boundaries. What actions should individual EHS pros in this country take beyond well-intentioned roundtable discussions?

It doesn’t take much. Years ago one of our editors shipped a box of complimentary EHS textbooks and guides we had received to Maharshi Mehta, who was starting an industrial hygiene school in India. We receive Christmas cards from Maharshi every year expressing his continuing thanks for that one simple act.

As with numerous other “big picture” social and economic issues, the baby boomer generation of EHS pros will be able to ride excuses into retirement if they choose to, unless they work for multinationals. But the next generation of professionals will traverse author Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” like most of us could never fathom.

The facts, the statistics, the reporting exposés and the scandals will keep coming, not only from China but other Asian-Pacific and emerging economies around the ever-shrinking “flat” world. Rationalizations, denials, repressions, all those other excuses, and talk talk talk will be flimsy and eventually obsolete defenses as global business — and global EHS interests and issues — becomes more and more interconnected.